Posted June 11, 2019 – Narrated by Carmen
I have left the land of bondage with its earthly treasures
I’ve journeyed to the place where there is love on every hand
I’ve exchanged the land of heartaches for the land of pleasure
I’m camping, I’m camping, in Canaan’s happy land
Every day I’m camping in the land of Canaan
And in rapture I survey its wondrous beauty grand
Glory, hallelujah I’ve found the land of promise
I’m camping, I’m camping, in Canaan’s happy land
– Camping In Canaan’s Land, by hymn writer, E. M. Bartlett
“Why are we out here in the middle of nowhere?”
Jim likes to pose the question when we’re camping out in the middle of nowhere looking down into a desert valley, or up into a green canopied forest, or relaxing beneath a nightfull of stars.
It’s his way of keeping it real and the question always gives me a start.
Over three years ago, as we finalized the details of our permanent exodus from the city, I encountered a similar moment of reckoning.
As I tossed our front doormat into the dumpster in the alley behind our house, a neighbor approached – a strikingly beautiful middle aged woman with a cosmopolitan Russian accent – she asked, “So, where you go now?”
As I explained Living in Beauty, her eyes cooled – signaling she probably wouldn’t be a new LIB follower – but I wasn’t prepared for the cynicism. She tossed her russet curls to the side and stooped like a hump backed old lady and pantomimed stirring a huge pot saying, “So you want to be like old woman in forest over pot stirring, stirring…“?
I stuttered, “I-I suppose so. Living close to the earth is in my blood.”
According to Terrance Young, author of Heading Out: A History of American Camping, when Americans camp, there are usually deeper motivations than economy.
Camping is in our bones
So, now we are thinking more and more about camping – not just about Living in Beauty – but how and why outdoor life has made us happy since childhood …
… the weekend camping trips with our families …
then, heading out as independent young adults …
cycle-camping in our 30’s…
then, introducing our son, Chris, to the outdoor life …
Then, empty nest camping …
and now, LIB, this senior RV permanent vacation.
So, what’s unique about the American relationship to the outdoors? Why are we drawn out of urban life and into the parks and wilderness? Why did we “head out?”
Historic leaps in industry and technology from 1920-2019 have made camping easier – even luxurious – but ever since we began this journey we’ve sensed the spirits of our ancestors cheering us on.
In his book, Terrance Young proposes that modern camping is about more than nostalgia or rugged individualism – it’s a particularly American form of pilgrimage.
Like a kindly park ranger, Young takes us on a guided nature walk through the history of camping in America.
With a naturalists eye he points out evidence of spiritual pilgrimage beneath the dark and tangled roots of towering romanticism which cascades its magnificent silvery moss draped branches over an anti-modernist reflective pond …
“…when a camping trip satisfied, the camper was transformed by his or her immersion into nature / not city, and then returned home having been changed in a positive way. In other words, camping is a form of pilgrimage.”
– Terrance Young, Heading Out
It’s so refreshing for a historian to take camping seriously, because when Americans camp en masse they can also transform history.
Cane Ridge Meeting House
Last month, in Bourbon County, Kentucky we made pilgrimage to the frontier church that launched The Second Great Awakening.
In 1801, over 20,000 pioneers converged for a three-day revival and changed the world. Traveling over harsh muddy terrain men and women with babes in arms journeyed for days to the Cane Ridge Meeting House – so named by Daniel Boone.
Some arrived in wagons, some on horseback, but most on foot. They wanted to share in a communion service with other like-minded believers who lived isolated and lonely on the frontier.
Now, with obvious differences, I couldn’t help but notice how The Cane Ridge Revival was like Woodstock with hymnals. After all, religion and entertainment have always been in competition for audience and political influence.
Both events were separate stories in American history, but they share a host of similarities. Each event had a vastly underestimated audience and both were nearly washed out by a summer rainstorm.
Household names and history-making, superstar-careers were launched overnight. Both Woodstock and Cane Ridge spawned copycat events by the thousands that continue to influence culture.
Cane Ridge is the birthplace of the first religious movement created in America after western expansion – and the same movement I was raised in.
I’m non religious now (due to the female subjugation thing) but I still cherish most of those frontier values which are so deeply embedded in the Church of Christ – and I sorely miss the congregational acapella tradition that artists like Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin and Loretta Lynn, among others, cut their teeth on.
But, the journey continues.
Everything flows. You can never step in the same river twice.
“Camping” comes from “campaign” – a military operation.
It’s a marvel of English that a word describing strategic movements for capturing towns and cities is recycled to explain a leisure activity for escaping cities.
Like most American pastimes, Heading Out exposes some of the more obvious ironies and hypocrisies of the camping lifestyle – like dependence.
Many campers are at odds with our culture’s aggressive technological progress except for the awesome outfitting equipment and connectivity it produces to enable us to get as far away as humanly possible from the very places those items are designed, manufactured and marketed.
And I probably should avoid mentioning the history of the ritual campfire – the third-rail of online camping forums. It’s enough to say that I loved it.
Young takes us behind the scenes and explains how camping in National Parks avoid signage.
Now, whenever we pull into a campsite, I actively inspect the area for Meinecke influence – a botanist in the 1920’s – who’s genius about human behavior still softens impact in protected park lands.
American camping began as a way to escape the ugliness of our bare, grey, industrial-era cities which rose up so quickly that no one could stand the filth, noise and stink.
But another tipping point was the introduction of “others” – people who arrived from strange lands speaking different languages, building unusual structures, cooking different foods, observing diverse religions and some having a darker hue of skin. The flight impulse overtook some city-dwellers and inspired them to lose their fear of the wilderness.
Camping offered families a sanctuary from otherness – and those with dispensible resources were the first to explore the possibilities. With a wagon, team and personal wilderness guide, The Rockies were the limit.
American ministers, philosophers and doctors prescribed heading out to become whole in a way that developing city life could not support. And, the wealthy documented their progress in books and news columns to the fascination of those at home.
Newspapers couldn’t write enough about The Vagabond’s – Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone‘s tours of the Everglades, Adirondacks, Catskills and Smoky Mountains. The celebrity press coverage even inspired Teddy Roosevelt to tag along.
The introduction of the affordable family car made camping all the rage for the middle classes.
I was fascinated to learn that affordable automobiles had little to do with producing family income. Folks had other ways to get to the job.
The car was a luxury vehicle that made it possible to access the new developing network of highways and back roads for no reason other than pure joy.
Wally Byam and the Airstream
Heading Out also includes a comprehensive history of Wally Byam and the Airstream’s legacy of peacemaking and international diplomacy.
Young makes the case that camping for the sake of camping – is a distinctly American impulse. Whether for leisure travel, community work, or to regain ones health – our protected parks and wilderness facilitate wholeness, health and education.
But, today, camping is in a slight decline.
Surveys taken since the beginning of the National Park system reflect a downward trend.
Young suggests the improvement of cities is the primary factor in the decline. Beautification and clean air make staycations more appealing.
Another factor at work in the decline is a lack of public interest from people of color, which can be traced to forced segregation in the pre-civil rights era National Park system. But efforts abound to make the parks a safe and welcoming place for everyone and participation is improving.
Still, one-sixth of the American population heads out every year. Camping is still in the top ten percent of leisure activities, which include watching television.
There’s no down-side to cleaning up cities and protecting our parks and wilderness lands. There’s something for everyone. Treasuring the environment and preserving what little that remains of our wilderness is a legacy all of us can celebrate and take actions to protect for generations to come.
Americans have always celebrated our cities as a force for economic change and social progress while Christian songs of majestic, shining cities pivot on stories of wilderness wanderings.
We, Americans, are both things – courageous frontiersmen and builders of cities. Regardless of the urban vs. rural battles that would divide us – all of it is good for all of us.
Back and forth we go between the two, city to frontier and back again. Like pilgrims – blurring the lines, softening the edges between heaven and earth – keeping the path clear and the door open for all who hope for reunion and a taste of communion.